“Gone are the days of Top 40; it’s now the top 43,000,” proclaimed Spotify in September.
The music streaming service was noting a decline in the popularity of top songs on its platform. At the same time, the popularity of smaller hits remained unchanged. Where popularity was once a pyramid, now it’s a diffuse network.
Welcome to the post-icon age.
The 1980s had Air Jordan and Back to the Future, and the 1990s had Vans Half Cab, New Balance 1500 and Britney Spears.
Now we have re-editions, inspired by, brought back and in collaboration with. We also have anti-icons, like Kanye West, Adam Neumann and Elon Musk, who are as known for their social media antics as for their creativity.
The problem is not the crisis of originality or the lack of creativity. Iconic products, ideas or personalities are always outcomes of their context. What’s happening in culture, society and the economy determines our icons. The social mood has to be right for everyone to like chunky sneakers or shoulder pads or to covet an invite to the Clubhouse.
These days, we’d be hard-pressed to find symbols that mean the same thing to everybody. Cardi B can be thought of as the most outspoken music artist at the moment, a star who’s been canceled or just one of many forming the backdrop of our pop culture.
The geography of influence, taste and communities shifted to micro. This landscape is less of a long tail that nurtures the idea of sleepers that could activate at any moment and reach mass culture. Just like the big, sweeping plains of culture asked for big, sweeping products and personalities, we now have many micro-cultures, each with its own niche products and personalities. Our concepts of “cool” and “iconic” are forged in the intimacy of our own taste communities.
At the same time, our taste space has never been flatter. Burning Man outfits, family pajama sets, Halloween costumes, weddings, craft breweries and coffee shops all appeal to our tendency to revert to the recognizable and familiar. Just like crickets or lightbulbs that are only amplified with Instagram likes, Twitter hashtags and other performance metrics, our taste signals are harmonized so all of us end up looking the same, dressing the same, liking the same things and visiting the same places that also start to look alike.
Here are the five forces that ushered us into this post-iconic future:
Icons take time to build a myth around themselves, and our culture operates under compressed trend cycles. When the pace for coming up with the next thing quickens, the best bet in creating something iconic is to riff off of something that’s already iconic (cue tireless Air Jordan reboots).
The irony here is that, under pressure for novelty, brands don’t really create anything new. Similarly, driven by desire for novelty, consumers never really get anything new.
Cult movies were often commercial disasters. They became iconic despite—or, more likely, due to—their lack of commercial success. Now, commercial success dictates what’s created, so we get an endless repetition of popular things. And everything from movies to sneakers is a sequel.
Everything’s a meme. It’s a commentary on the already familiar, popular and recognizable things, which are changed just enough to be taken out of their original context and turned into a joke or an ironic read. Strategies of enrichment through invented heritage and turning things into “art” also go here.